I think we’ve all been there, at some point after a glass, or a couple of glasses, the dreaded wine headache rears its ugly head. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the causes for a wine headache, so I wanted to delve in and find some real answers about what causes a wine headache, how we might avoid it in the future and hopefully, dispel some of the common misconceptions about your wine headache.
Wine Headache Causes:
Dehydration: Ok, so for 99% of you reading this, dehydration is the likely cause of your wine headache. Wine, like all alcohol, acts like a diuretic, encouraging urine production and therefore, causing dehydration as more liquid is leaving your body. Not having enough water, tends to lead to headache. Luckily, that old rule that your parents told you before going away to college does really work. If you mix in a glass of water with every glass of alcohol, you’ll not only avoid the embarrassing drunken nights, but you’ll also likely avoid the headache the next morning.
So, tannins might be the most complicated of all the possible causes of your wine headache. Basically, tannins are imparted by the skins and the stems of the grapes. If you only get headaches from red wine and not white, white wines basically have a minimum of tannin, so this could be a cause. Additionally, if you suffer more from darker and thicker skinned grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah in lieu of Pinot Noir, that’s another sign.
While the science isn’t entirely clear to everyone yet, most scientists believe that your body may be reacting to tannins, by either releasing an excess amount of serotonin in your brain, or causing your stomach to release a different set of enzymes than it would normally. There’s not a complete fix unfortunately, other than to figure out if you can stomach certain varietals and not others.
Sugar functions much the same as alcohol in that it tends to dehydrate us. Basically your body performs a simple function when processing sugar, it uses an awful lot of water. If you don’t have that water readily available, your body will strip it from cells within your body, including your head/brain. That lack of water can lead to headache. It’s also why the easiest solution to many headaches is to drink a glass of water before they come on too strong.
A second consideration in regard to sugar comes down to the types of wine that you normally drink. While there are some wine varietals which tend to carry some residual sugar (IE, sugar that is left over after fermentation on purpose) like Riesling, those make up an incredibly small percentage of wine sales in America. Instead the real culprit here are the mass produced wines which are sold at every grocery store in America.
I wrote a review of one of them, the Apothic Red, which carries a significant amount of residual sugar. Many cheaper wines see their winemakers actually add sugar during fermentation to up the alcohol level (sugar is directly turned to alcohol, that’s the entire point of fermenting grapes)
Admittedly, histamine research into wine is in it’s infancy. In fact, there’s barely any real science behind it as it currently stands. There were some studies taken on back in the early 1990’s like this one, showing that yes, people with a history of not tolerating red wine, tend to do so because their bodies are not processing histamine effectively or efficiently.
It’s worth it to point out that histamine’s tend to show up, not only in wine, but in all fermented foods. So this is a pretty quick check. If you’re unable to tolerate wine, but you can tolerate other fermented foods like aged cheeses, yogurt and cured meats like sausages your issue is likely not due to histamines.
It’s also worth it to point out that histamine levels in wine are inconsistent based on a number of different factors that include things which you won’t notice based on the label. A glass of white wine tends to have about 75 micrograms per glass on average, whereas red wine tends to have many times that number, sometimes into the thousands of micrograms, although it seems that about 500 is likely average.
Blue Cheese: 2,300
Fresh Tuna: 180
Pepperoni: 55mg per 100grams (this is about a serving, give or take)
Do Sulfites Cause Headaches?
Quick answer, nope. Here’s some common foods with their accompanying sulfite levels.
Wine typically has some naturally occurring sulfite levels. It’s about 5 parts per million. Additionally, sulfur does get added by winemakers as a stabilizer, that’s normally like 200-400 parts per million. Some wineries and winemakers tend to avoid added sulfur, with Donkey and Goat in Berkeley a great example.
You’re thinking, dang, those count for sulfites right?
They do, but not really compared to some other choices like dried fruits which pack a fairly amazing 2,000 parts per million. Lunch meat is well over 100 parts per million as well.
Ok, so what is causing your wine headache? It’s likely dehydration, unless it’s something totally obscure that doesn’t happen much. We like to blame our favorite things for causing our issues, but sometimes the facts simply don’t match up.